Bankrolled by a small group of major businesses, unions and wealthy individuals, independent spending groups have showered California legislative and statewide campaigns with more than $47 million for mailers, TV ads and other advocacy efforts leading up to Tuesday’s election.
The campaign committees use names that obscure their sources, such as Keeping Californians Working or Spirit of Democracy. But an analysis of campaign finance data by The Sacramento Bee found that the 20 most active groups share many of the same big donors, among them the California Association of Realtors, affiliates of the Service Employees International Union, and Chevron Corp.
In at least a dozen instances, the outside groups have spent far more money than candidates’ own campaigns.
“More and more, the trend is away from candidates’ campaigns and to the IEs,” said Democratic consultant Steve Maviglio, who is working with a union-funded committee trying to elect former Assemblyman Jose Solorio to an Orange County Senate seat. “Donors want more control over how their money is being spent.”
Committees, which are legally prohibited from coordinating with candidates, often consist of little more than a treasurer and a political consultant and are less accountable to the public for negative claims. Donors can give no more than $4,100 per election to candidate campaign committees, while independent expenditure committees can raise and spend unlimited amounts.
“The basic thing that’s happening is it’s just a ruse to get around candidate contribution limits,” said Derek Cressman, who unsuccessfully ran for secretary of state this year.
State campaigns represent only part of the flood of outside spending across California. Federal independent committees have played a major role in the barrage of TV ads in Sacramento County’s 7th Congressional District, where Democratic Rep. Ami Bera is facing a challenge from former Rep. Doug Ose, a Republican. Outside spending in the race topped $13 million through Thursday, the most of any House race. It’s the largest share of the nearly $30 million spent this fall in California congressional contests.
In some contests, meanwhile, the independent spending groups have all but sidelined candidates’ own campaigns.
In the fight for superintendent of public instruction, a nonpartisan post, incumbent Tom Torlakson and challenger Marshall Tuck raised less than $1.7 million between them from Aug. 1 through Thursday. Independent expenditure committees – largely teachers unions for Torlakson and wealthy business executives for Tuck – pumped almost $14 million into the contest during that time.
In the Sacramento-based 6th Senate District, Democrats Richard Pan and Roger Dickinson have collectively raised $603,000 since Aug. 1. Outside groups funded by unions, the real-estate industry, trial lawyers, oil companies and others have spent nearly $3.3 million.
Candidates have no control over the content and tone of independent expenditure groups’ mailers and TV ads. That can sometimes work to a candidate’s advantage. In the Pan-Dickinson race, for example, outside groups’ attacks have allowed Dickinson and Pan to spend more of their own money on positive pieces.
Traditional Democrat-vs.-Republican races also feature a lot of outside spending, such as the race between Solorio and Republican Janet Nguyen. But candidates in those contests typically have much more money to spend on their own campaigns than their counterparts in same-party races.
As of Tuesday, more than 100 outside committees had spent money in almost 50 contests for the Legislature, statewide office and the Board of Equalization. But just 20 committees, including the California Republican Party, have generated more than three-quarters of the spending. The other 19 committees get the bulk of their money from only about 100 donors, according to state filings through mid-October.
The California Teachers Association has helped fund four outside spending committees, including the campaign to re-elect Torlakson and defeat Tuck, who wants to overhaul teachers’ job protections. Affiliates of the Service Employees International Union have also contributed to that effort, as well as to committees opposing Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, the Republican candidate for state controller, and supporting Democrat Tim Sbranti in a closely fought Bay Area Assembly race.
Jon Youngdahl, executive director of SEIU California, said the union’s 700,000 members are directly affected by what happens in the Legislature. SEIU plans to make another push for two of its priorities that stalled in 2014: paid sick leave for home care workers and legislation to help workers recover unpaid wages.
“Every day they face the consequences of what happens in Sacramento or Washington, D.C.,” Youngdahl said, adding that unions have to team up in multiple efforts in campaign season. “It wouldn’t make sense for SEIU to go it alone.”
Among the union’s independent committee partners is a sometime-foe, the California Association of Realtors, which last session fought against union-backed legislation that would have imposed a fee on real-estate transactions to help pay for affordable housing.
This fall, both SEIU and the Realtors association have contributed to Californians for Fiscal Accountability and Responsibility, also funded by the California Medical Association and other health-related donors. The group has spent more than $460,000 to support Pan, a doctor, in the Sacramento Senate race.
Campaign experts cite multiple reasons for the large number of independent committees.
Some donors might seek to influence the outcome in a district with high unemployment, so organizers create a committee that includes “jobs” in the title. Because California’s Legislature is controlled by Democrats, some donors are reluctant to give to independent efforts to attack Democratic candidates, but will donate to produce positive messages supporting Republicans.
“It makes sense that not everybody is going to agree about every race,” said Republican consultant Jim Nygren, who works for three of the 20 most active independent committees.
Rob Lapsley, president of the California Business Roundtable, said outside spending committees decide who to back on “a case-by-case basis.” Once a group identifies “a more business-friendly candidate,” committee sponsors begin to invite donors to join in an outside effort to help elect that person.
Chevron Corp., which lobbied the Legislature this year on issues such as hydraulic fracturing and groundwater monitoring, has given to four of the 20 committees spending the most this fall, records show. The recipients include Keeping Californians Working, an independent committee that has spent more than $223,000 backing Pan or opposing Dickinson.
“Our approach is focused on supporting good government, free enterprise and economic progress through effective and responsible state leadership,” spokesman Justin Higgs said in a statement. Other major independent committee donors, including the real estate group, did not respond to requests for comment.
In some cases, the same donors have given to committees on opposite sides of a race.
In the fight for the Sacramento-to-Lodi 9th Assembly District, Californians for Jobs and a Strong Economy has spent $300,000 this year supporting Elk Grove Vice Mayor Jim Cooper, a Democrat. Pacific Gas and Electric Corp. is among the committee’s largest donors, contributing $216,000 this year. The company, though, also is the third-largest donor to the Golden State Leadership Fund, which has spent more than $168,000 opposing Cooper or supporting his opponent, Sacramento Councilman Darrell Fong, a Democrat.
Sometimes the conflicting spending appears to be inadvertent. In other cases, Maviglio said, donors want “to cover their bases.”
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